Officials say the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is decreasing in Rakhine State, but residents are struggling under stay-at-home orders and other restrictions that are pushing up commodity prices.
By KAUNG HSET NAING | FRONTIER
One month after a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases in Rakhine State, officials there say the spread of the virus is under control.
After COVID-19 was detected in an employee at a bank branch in Sittwe, the state capital, on August 16, the number of cases in Rakhine had risen above 850 by September 17.
But in welcome news for the national campaign against COVID-19, the Ministry of Health and Sports and the state government said on September 15 – a day in which just eight cases were confirmed in Rakhine – that the number of new confirmed cases was falling and the virus had been brought under control.
Although case numbers have occasionally spiked – including 80 on September 16 and 44 on September 14 – the state is still tracking much better than early September, when it was the source of most cases in Myanmar.
In Sittwe, the epicentre of the outbreak in Rakhine, 242 patients had recovered and been discharged from hospital to September 15, with fewer than 200 patients still receiving treatment.
“The number of positive cases has decreased and only 197 remain in hospital, so, at the moment we are able to control the situation,” said Dr Zaw Lwin, superintendent of the 500-bed Sittwe General Hospital.
There are nine GeneXpert testing machines in Rakhine each capable of processing between 100 and 150 tests a day, according to a September 18 report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The Ministry of Health and Sports said on September 15 that there were 384 patients under treatment in Rakhine, a decline that officials attributed to public compliance with stay-at-home orders and observing social distancing.
The state government says there is ample space at quarantine centres because plans had been made for them to accommodate up to 5,000 people but they were holding fewer than half that number on September 12.
Zaw Lwin said it was important to remain vigilant. “We must continue to adhere to the instructions of MOHS,” he said.
Doubts over health response
Despite the assurances from the state government, Rakhine residents continue to worry about inefficiency in locating people who have been in contact with positive cases. They are also struggling under stay-at-home orders that are hurting the economy and facing rising food prices due to difficulties transporting commodities from other parts of the country.
The UNOCHA report noted that, while testing capacity throughout the state is increasing, “the number of contacts currently waiting to be tested is significant.”
Sittwe resident Ma Chan Nyein Wai, 31, remains worried about undetected carriers of COVID-19 among the general population, despite the decline in new cases.
“The virus cannot be seen with the naked eye and I am very worried that someone who may have been in contact with an infected person is among the public,” she said.
Her fears were echoed by other urban residents in Rakhine.
“If only family members of positive cases are asked to quarantine and their neighbours are not asked to do so, they might also have COVID-19,” said U Zaw Zaw Tun, secretary of the Arakan Humanitarian Coordination Team.
A network of civil society groups, the AHCT is working with the government on COVID-19 prevention measures and has opened two quarantine centres in Sittwe.
Zaw Zaw Tun, who is also a senior member of the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, told of hearsay that people with COVID-19 symptoms, such as losing their sense of smell or developing a fever, were yet to be quarantined and were still in contact with neighbours.
A Sittwe resident who requested anonymity said he was aware of a person infected with COVID-19 who was living with about 20 other people.
Rakhine Minister of Municipal Affairs U Win Myint, who is also the state government’s spokesperson, said he understood the people’s concerns and acknowledged that the system was not perfect.
“We are doing our best in cooperation with MOHS but sometimes some [close contacts] may not be checked,” he said.
“If residents know of any such people, please inform us,” he said. “We need the cooperation of the people.”
Disrupted trade flows
Transportation is challenging in Rakhine at the best of times because of networks of rivers and creeks and the lack of road and rail infrastructure. Before the pandemic, the situation had been exacerbated by the fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army, but the government’s efforts to contain the recent COVID-19 outbreak have made the flow of goods to and from Rakhine even more difficult.
No one is allowed to leave the state without permission, and even then must quarantine for 21 days in their next destination.
This has affected trucking, as companies now must change drivers or change trucks at the entrance to Rakhine State. The need to swap drivers and also navigate the large number of checkpoints has resulted in fewer trucks heading to Rakhine, which has increased transport costs.
“In practice, it is difficult to implement the system of changing drivers or trucks, and it makes things much more expensive,” said U Aung Aung from the Rakhine State chamber of commerce and industry. “And drivers who do come face a lot of checkpoints that slow down their trip. They are frustrated and refuse to come again.”
Some goods from Yangon are still reaching Sittwe by ship, but items that are normally sent overland from Magway and Mandalay regions – including onions, potatoes and other vegetables, dried chilli and cooking oil – are in short supply.
Meanwhile, the longer transport time has made the export of marine products from Rakhine – one of the state’s most important industries – much more difficult.
Ko Han Win Aung, who runs a grocery store in Myothit Ward in Kyauktaw Township, said the cost of transporting a viss of goods (a viss is equal to 1.66 kilograms) from Mandalay has risen from K180 to K220. A viss of onions that costs K600 in Mandalay is now well over K800 by the time it reaches Rakhine, he said.
“The transportation cost now makes it uneconomic to bring in many things,” he said. “But even at this price, the trucking companies won’t take all types of goods … I am having to wait a long time for them to find drivers who are willing to come to Rakhine.”
Residents in Sittwe, Mrauk-U and other townships confirmed prices were rising and products were getting harder to find. “Potatoes were nearly out of stock here at the end of August,” said Ma Chan Nyein Wei from Sittwe. “When we were able to buy them again, the price had risen by K500 a viss.”
In a state already badly affected by conflict, the disruption of trade has made life even more difficult for many.
Zaw Zaw Tun said that some restrictions should be relaxed to ensure a smooth flow of goods and airlines should also be allowed to resume operations to Rakhine State.
“The longer this goes on, the worse the situation will become. The government needs to find a way to improve transportation and the flow of goods,” he said.
Is the end in sight?
For now, the stay at home orders that the Ministry of Health and Sports imposed on all townships in Rakhine State on August 25 remain in place.
But there is hope that with cases declining the restrictions could soon be relaxed. Authorities face a difficult decision: lifting measures too early could lead to a resurgence but retaining them too long will inflict unnecessary economic pain, particularly for daily wage earners.
Han Win Aung said Kyauktaw’s economy had already been disrupted badly by the conflict, and COVID-19 had only made the situation worse.
COVID-19 restrictions have also made it difficult for civil society groups to provide support to around 200,000 people, mostly ethnic Rakhine, who have been displaced by conflict between the Tatmadaw and AA. Most are not in recognised camps for displaced persons so they receive little support.
Zaw Zaw Tun said that while everyone needed to be cautious in order to keep the virus at bay, people forced to choose between their health and work will choose the latter because they have families to support.
“The government should either relax these restrictions or provide more support to these IDPs. It has to do one or the other,” he said.
But the Rakhine State government says it will only relax the restrictions once the virus has clearly been contained.
“When the virus has stopped spreading completely,” said Win Myint, the government spokesperson, “then of course we will relax them.”